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How to help employees have difficult conversations

Many workplace conversations involve sending or receiving “bad news”. These difficult conversations are often dreaded, poorly executed, or avoided altogether.

Even in the best of times addressing issues such as conduct, absenteeism, and performance can be hard. The shift to remote working had made managing performance and communication more challenging.

Difficult workplace conversations can potentially make us feel uncomfortable and damage our relationships. Sometimes it’s because the task seems so difficult, that we don’t think we have time.

In our professional lives, avoiding a difficult conversation might mean not pulling up your best sales manager because of her offensive behaviour to a junior member of the team.

Simply the perception that the conversation will be difficult is enough to magnify the level of dread and concern about having to have it.

If we avoid these conversations it will only create further problems down the line. Wrestling with unresolved issues robs individuals of energy. Delaying action has a detrimental effect on individuals and teams, affecting morale and productivity.

The cost of avoiding difficult conversations

Acas estimates that workplace conflict costs UK employers £28.5 billion every year, an average of just over £1,000 for every employee. The report highlights the need to invest in early and preventative action including helping managers to identify problems early to prevent unnecessary resignations or dismissals.

According to Acas Chief Executive, Susan Clews: “Poor conflict management can also cause staff stress, anxiety or depression and impact workplace productivity. There’s a clear benefit to everyone in handling problems as early as possible.”

In 2020/21 work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 50% of all work-related ill-health. The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted people’s mental health and wellbeing with the effects likely to be long-lasting.

So instead of avoiding difficult conversations, the more constructive – and cost-effective – option is to ensure you and your employees have the skills to have better conversations, both in-person and virtually.

Preparation is key, particularly when a meeting needs to be held virtually, so here are some useful tips when you need to have a difficult conversation at work:

  • Positive response

Act quickly when you spot a problem will stop it from getting worse. Think about a time and place to have the conversation. When asking for the meeting make it clear that you’d like to talk about something important at a specific time. Setting expectations and specificity will increase the chances of a positive outcome. If the meeting is virtual make sure the other person is able to have a private conversation with you at that time. Ensure the technology works – switch to a telephone call – if the internet connection is poor.

  • Ground the conversation

Before your meeting, take time to consider the basis on which your conversation will be built. This is where some people become stuck as they don’t always think they have the time. If you consider how much time you take procrastinating about the situation, then preparation to finally deal with the situation is time well spent.

  • Think about the intention

It’s important to demonstrate to the other person why dealing with this matter is as much in their interests as yours. A partnership has a much better chance of success than opposition. This is about reframing the conversation so that both parties are aligned.

Our short animation below explains this concept further.

Then use DELIA to guide the conversation

  • Describe

Describe the specific behaviour or performance that you are concerned about in as factual, non-emotive terminology as possible by using “I” statement rather than “You” ones. Be sure to have evidence or examples. Being very specific gives your comments more credibility.

  • Explain

Explain the reasons for your concern, why the behaviour or performance is unacceptable, its impact on team performance and how it makes you feel. You might also choose to explain your own contribution to the problem which can be trickier. Be ready to identify and acknowledge how your own behaviour or actions may be have contributed to the problem and be ready to act on them.

  • Listen

Gain feedback from the individual and importantly take time to really listen to their response. Check that your understanding is accurate. Ask open-ended questions and don’t make assumptions. Be ready to listen for and understand ways in which you might be contributing to the problem by your action or inaction – prepare to accept that you might be wrong.

  • Identify alternatives

Identify an acceptable alternative to the behaviour or performance you’re discussing. Give the person a picture of how they should perform or behave and give examples if appropriate. In some cases you might wish to invite the individual to come up with their own ideas.

  • Agree action

Agree the next steps with the individual. This should involve a follow-up meeting to review progress, and may involve other actions for you and the other person. Don’t forget to write notes.

You can find out more about our managing difficult conversations course and our range of leadership and personal effectiveness courses here.


Updated February 2022


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